Day a football saint almost cheated the champions-elect

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The Independent Online

It was the moment that the universally revered Billy Wright almost cheated Chelsea out of their first championship; that defining instant when the Wolverhampton Wanderers centre- half and England captain punched the ball over his own bar to deny the "Pensioners" a vital goal in their title campaign - and nearly got away with it, too.

It was the moment that the universally revered Billy Wright almost cheated Chelsea out of their first championship; that defining instant when the Wolverhampton Wanderers centre- half and England captain punched the ball over his own bar to deny the "Pensioners" a vital goal in their title campaign - and nearly got away with it, too.

One can only imagine what wrath such an incident would provoke in Jose Mourinho and his players today, and the fallout. Back then, on Easter Saturday 1955, the two captains, Wright and Chelsea's Roy Bentley, would end the day sharing a joke about it.

As John Terry and his men claim the club's second top- division championship after a 50-year hiatus, they may reflect that their predecessors undertook a considerably more daunting passage to that destination. Not only was it then far more competitive at the summit of the old First Division, with at least six teams still in title contention at Easter, but there was no respect for player fatigue.

That Easter, Chelsea played Sheffield United on Good Friday (before a 50,000 crowd) at Stamford Bridge and the following day met Wolves there (in front of 75,043) in what was, effectively, a title decider. With four matches remaining, Chelsea were five points ahead of second-placed Wolves, although Wanderers had three games in hand.

Bentley recalls the match in his autobiography, Going For Goal, published later that year. It was a tense occasion, so fraught that even Bentley castigates himself for "the miss of the season", four yards from goal. Nil-nil, with 17 minutes to go, and Chelsea's Seamus O'Connell produced a shot which had the Wolves goalkeeper, Bert Williams, beaten, only for Wright to fist the ball over the bar.

"It was a penalty, obviously, but wait - was the referee going to award it to us?" writes Bentley. "He wasn't." Fortunately, the linesman had waved his flag. "I chased after the referee, asking him to consult his linesman." After an age, a spot-kick was awarded, and "Thud! 'No-nerves' Peter Sillett drove the ball home." It was the winner, and the title was Stamford Bridge-bound.

Bentley adds: "Billy Wright came into our dressing room to congratulate us. 'Sorry about my goalkeeping act, Roy!' he said. 'A sudden impulse made me stop it. For a minute I thought I was going to get away with it.' We exchanged a wink. I don't blame Billy one bit - I'd have done the same in his position."

Two weeks later, Chelsea defeated Sheffield Wednesday at the Bridge. Chelsea were champions and no longer the music-hall joke long beloved by comedians. The achievement was an end in itself. No European competition as a prize, precious little in the way of financial rewards.

For Terry, in a fortnight's time, a brief England tour of the USA beckons, then a complete break. For his counterpart of '55, the summer would have meant more time devoted to his second job, that of a salesman's representative for a wholesale electrical business in Victoria. Even during the season, he would work there after training on two days of the week.

Today after training, Terry purrs away in a Bentley (an appropriate choice?). Bentley travelled home by tube. In his home life, he drove a "small car" in which he enjoyed taking the family out on a Sunday after attending church in the morning. His vice, the England forward conceded, was smoking, "although long before a key game, I stop my habit until after the game".

Footballers' lifestyles have changed radically. However, the satisfaction of attaining domestic football's ultimate prize remains for Bentley and Terry, the Blues Brothers, separated by half a century but bound by a common goal.

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